Oklahoma City Thunder 109, Phoenix Suns 97 PHOENIX — If the Suns make the playoffs they are really going to deserve it. That’s because their Murderers’ Row of a finishing schedule...

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{Editor's Note: This excellent Mike Lisboa piece, originally posted on August 17, 2011, is re-published today in recognition of John MacLeod's induction in the Suns Ring of Honor, the ceremony for which will be held at tonight's game.}

The question of John MacLeod’s absence from the Phoenix Suns’ Ring of Honor first occurred to me when Jerry Sloan announced his retirement. While he didn’t enjoy quite the same success as Jerry Sloan, John MacLeod is the longest tenured coach in Phoenix Suns history. "What gives?" I wondered.

This article is not written from an unbiased place. I grew up in Phoenix, having been born there in 1974. My parents had Phoenix Suns season tickets. In junior high, I twice attended the John MacLeod Basketball Camp at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott. While I didn’t know MacLeod personally by any stretch of the imagination, figuratively speaking, he was the face of basketball authority for the first 14 years of my life. That makes an impression.

The Phoenix Suns entered the National Basketball Association in 1968. John MacLeod became the Phoenix Suns’ head coach at the beginning of the 1973-74 season. Prior to hiring MacLeod, the Suns had seen five different head coaches in 5 seasons: Johnny "Red" Kerr (1968-69), Lowell "Cotton" Fitzsimmons (1970-72), Butch Van Breda Kolff (7 games of the 1972-73 season) and two stints by Jerry Colangelo (1970, 1972-73). The young franchise was in dire need of a steady presence on the sidelines. Enter John MacLeod.

Plenty of John MacLeod goodness after the jump.

Coming off a six year stint as head coach at Oklahoma, MacLeod was hired at the beginning of the 1973 season to completely overhaul the franchise’s on-court presence. MacLeod’s first two seasons were disappointing, featuring a combined record of 62-102, but there was a bigger picture to consider.

From Suns.com:

MacLeod, handpicked off the Oklahoma University campus by General Manager Jerry Colangelo two years earlier to oversee a thorough rebuilding of the Suns, was in the midst of laying the foundation for a team they hoped would be a perennial contender. The year before, center Neal Walk and a second-round draft pick had been traded to the New Orleans Jazz in exchange for center Dennis Awtrey, forward Curtis Perry, guard Nate Hawthorne, and the Jazz' first round pick in 1975. The Suns had drafted Notre Dame forward John Shumate with the fourth overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft. Popular forward Connie Hawkins had been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers for swingman Keith Erickson.

Prior to the '75-76 season, the final pieces, and the biggest, were put into place. Prior the 1975 Draft, talented guard Charlie Scott was dealt to Boston for guard Paul Westphal and second-round picks in the '75 and '76. In the draft, the Suns, holders again of the fourth-overall pick, selected 6-9 center Alvan Adams, who was recruited to Oklahoma by MacLeod before the coach departed for Phoenix. MacLeod clearly was staking his reputation, not to mention his future in Phoenix, on the lanky Adams. MacLeod's based his pick on Adams' mobility, coupled with his outstanding passing skills.With the pick they had acquired from the Jazz, the 16th pick overall, Phoenix selected guard Ricky Sobers from Nevada-Las Vegas. Like most players who were tutored by Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian, Sobers was an outstanding defender and could easily adapt to the open-court style MacLeod was aiming for.

In addition, the Suns picked up guards Phil Lumpkin (trade with Portland), John Wetzel (waivers from Atlanta three weeks into the season) and Pat Riley (trade with the Lakers in early November). Coupled with Team Captain Dick Van Arsdale, the Suns unveiled a vastly different group in the fall of 1975.

In his third season, he would make Phoenix Suns (and NBA) history by leading the team to its first NBA Finals berth against the Boston Celtics. The Suns, of course, would go on to lose in six games, with game five being the historic "Greatest Game Ever Played."

After reaching the NBA Finals, the Suns disappointed the following year with a 34-48 record and no playoff appearance. In the ensuing decade however, MacLeod would become the first head coach to make success the expectation, not the exception, for a generation of Suns fans. From 1977 to 1985, the Phoenix Suns made 8 consecutive trips to the playoffs including 5 appearances in the Western Conference semi-finals and 2 appearances in the WC Finals. During this stretch, Coach MacLeod and the Suns amassed a record of 387-269 (.590) and set the benchmark for what would be considered success for the franchise going forward. Unfortunately for MacLeod and Suns fans, it was a benchmark he would not reach again. In the 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons, the Suns would go on to win only 32 and 22 games respectively.

When he was fired at the end of the 1987 season, John MacLeod was in his 14th season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns. At the time, he was the longest active tenured coach and the 2nd longest in NBA history behind Red Auerbach’s 16 seasons with the Boston Celtics. A few months after his termination, a massive drug scandal would consume the Suns resulting in a blown-up roster and setting the stage for the Suns’ 1990s renaissance.

MacLeod would go on to brief head NBA head coaching stints with the Dallas Mavericks and the New York Knicks and then log another 8 years as head coach of Notre Dame University's men's basketball program. He has since served as and assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors. In 2005, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

Salient bullet points:

  • Longest tenured coach in Suns history
  • Laid the foundation for the 1975-76 Sunderella roster
  • Led Suns to their first NBA Finals after only 3 seasons/
  • Led Suns to playoffs in 9 of his 14 seasons, including 8 straight from 1977-1985
  • Led Suns to 3 Western Conference Finals and 1 NBA Finals
  • Cumulative .516 regular season win-loss record
  • Cumulative .465 playoff record

So, what say you, Bright Siders? Is this a Ring of Honor resume? The final numbers may not be as gaudy as Mike D'Antoni's comparatively brief brilliance (.650 regular season win percentage), but I think in this case, the numbers only tell part of the story. Coach MacLeod was a chief architect in engineering a winning foundation that this franchise has sought to maintain since his tenure. For that, a trip back to Phoenix to add his name to the Ring of Honor is the least we can do.

Win-loss numbers obtained from basketball-reference.com.

[Note by Mike Lisboa, 08/17/11 1:23 PM PDT ]

Due to SBNation's photo policy, I can't post any non-cleared photos in this story. However I can link to this great photo from Life Magazine of John MacLeod (and his sweet gray-fro) giving some guidance to an impossibly young-looking Jeff Hornacek.

Well, after a fierce night of intense basketball with huge implications in the Western Conference playoffs race, the Suns miraculously are still clinging to the No. 8 seed.

What's that you say? None of the teams the Suns are fighting for a spot with played last night? Oh. So what did happen last night?

Well, there were some games that mattered.

Make the jump for updated standings, my attempt to connect Tuesday night's games to the Suns and a primer for what to watch for tonight.

Western Conference Standings as of Tuesday, April 17 via NBA.com:


There were not any games that directly affected the Suns, but three playoff teams in the Western Conference did take the floor last night.

(1) San Antonio Spurs BEAT (3) Los Angeles Lakers, 112-91

Spurs 112, Lakers 91: One Good Outlier Deserves Another

Tonight was rough for the Lakers, and for us, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't expected. The Spurs came out ready to play and vindicate the previous contest, and enough shitty things happened to the purple and gold as to ensure the result. This says no more about the state of these two teams heading into the postseason than the previous contest did.

Unfortunately, one of these teams had to win. Fortunately, that also meant one of them had to lose, and even more fortunately, it was the Lakers that did so.

The win put San Antonio half a game ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for first place in the Western Conference. If the Suns can manage to upset the Thunder tonight, that would give the Spurs even more of a cushion, thereby increasing the chances Gregg Popovich rests his starters in the final game of the season against the Suns. Laker misery and help for the Suns? Not a bad result.

(5) Memphis Grizzlies BEAT Minnesota Timberwolves, 91-84

Grizzlies 91, Timberwolves 84: Business Taken Care Of

It was a nondescript game, yes, but it's just the kind that can sometimes be tough to properly focus in on. The Memphis Grizzlies topped the Minnesota Timberwolves, now shells of their early season selves, in Minneapolis, getting what they needed out of the night -- a win however it came -- with a little extra on the side in the quick return of All-Star Marc Gasol.

The Grizzlies find themselves pretty solidly in the No. 5 seed, two games behind the No. 4 seed Los Angeles Clippers and two games ahead of the No. 6 seed Denver Nuggets.

Marc Gasol is back for the Grizzlies a day after being diagnosed with a bone bruise and listed as day-to-day just yesterday in the Grizzlies' loss to the New Orleans Hornets. Gasol is a key part of the team, and Memphis fans are surely breathing big sighs of relief after the big man did not miss any time with his injury.

Games to watch Wednesday, April 18:

  • OKC@PHX -- This is obviously the most important game of the day. While a loss wouldn't kill the Suns' hopes, a win sure would be nice.
  • HOU@DAL -- The Suns are tied with the Rockets and 1.5 games behind the Mavericks. While a Dallas victory would be preferable in this situation, a Houston win wouldn't be the end of the world as Dallas is in danger of falling even farther than the 7th spot they are currently sitting in.
  • LAC@DEN -- With their sweep of the Rockets, the Nuggets separated themselves from the scrum at the bottom of the playoff standings, although they are just two games ahead of the Suns and are not uncatchable. Another reason to root for the Clippers is they are just half a game behind the Lakers in the race for the Pacific Division crown.
  • SAS@SAC -- This should be an easy win for San Antonio. That's good for the Suns.
  • UTA@POR -- Utah is just half a game behind Phoenix and Houston, so it would be much appreciated 'round these parts if the Blazers were to actually show up for this one.
  • LAL@GSW -- Well, it looks like the Clippers won't be catching the Lakers on this night. Oh well.

It is going to be a busy night in the NBA, and an important one for the Western Conference playoff race.

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Mar, 7, 2012; Oklahoma City  OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) fights for position against Phoenix Suns small forward Grant Hill (33) during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

With five games to go and the Suns sitting in eighth place by virtue of a tiebreaker edge over the Rockets, every game left is hugely important. Wednesday's clash at home with one of the Western Conference favorites, the Oklahoma City Thunder, will go a long way towards determining whether the Suns will make it to the postseason.

Zorgon, the "proprietor and manager" of Thunder blog Welcome to Loud City, took some time to participate in a chat with me on a break from his studies in Austria as he was in Skopje, Macedonia, hoping to score tickets to their domestic league games. No, seriously, that is where he was and what he was doing. He asked questions of me about the Suns and I asked questions of him about the Thunder. We did not, however, discuss any Macedonian NBA prospects. Sorry to disappoint.

Jump it to learn more about the Suns next opponent before Wednesday's critical game.

We start with a question of Zorgon to me:

Zorgon: A lot has been made recently of Steve Nash's rumored departure to Miami after his contract with the Suns is up this season. With the future of the team in mind, would you like to see him go so the team can start a rebuild/retool, or would you like to see him stay because you believe the team still has a shot of going deep with him one or two years from now?

Ray: First of all, the Nash to Heat rumor is a fairly flimsy one. He was asked if he'd consider going there and simply didn't rule it out. The question of whether Nash should be allowed to walk has been haunting our blog for most of the past year, and I've been a proponent of keeping him, and seeing what the team can do with its cap space this coming offseason.

Zorgon: Ideally, who would you be eying with that potential cap space for a run with Nash?

Ray: Eric Gordon is a name that has been mentioned, but "ideally" is the key term because he's a restricted free agent and you'd have to guess the Hornets want to keep him. A premier power forward is what the team really needs, perhaps Josh Smith? But I don't like to speculate too much on specific players on other teams.


Ray: The conventional wisdom is that young teams who haven't yet proven their championship mettle find home court advantage more valuable in the playoffs than veteran teams do. How important is it that the Thunder beat out the Spurs for the No. 1 seed in the West?

Zorgon: I'd say extremely important. Some of the Thunder's worst losses have come away from home, and, as anybody whose been to a Thunder playoff game will tell you, the support in there is fantastic. I wouldn't really chalk it up to them being young, because most of the "immature" moments I see from them come from how they play during crunch time, and things like stupid technicals come from players you'd expect it to come from, like Perkins and Westbrook. And those mistakes have come both at home and away.


Zorgon: Robin Lopez has seen decreasing minutes and production since the 09-10 season. Would you say picking him ahead of guys like Roy Hibbert and J.J. Hickson was a total flop, or have we not seen the last of this guy?

Ray: Lopez has had an up and down career so far, but he's actually playing fairly well in a backup role this year. He'll be a restricted free agent this off-season and I'm sure he'll get offered a nice contract by someone, given the dearth of centers around the league. There are players the Suns could have picked otherwise, for sure. Wasn't Ibaka picked after him? And Hibbert, as you mentioned. Hickson has yet to make a contribution to a winning team and was cut by the Kings so the jury is still out on him. In summary, I think Lopez can be a capable, middling starting center in the league, just not sure it will be in Phoenix.

Zorgon: Ibaka and McGee were picked after him as well, yeah.

Ray: Not a McGee fan either. Amazingly low basketball IQ.

Zorgon: So, correct me if I'm wrong, are you insinuating that you'd rather have Lopez than JaVale McGee?

Ray: Haven't given this any thought until now, but I think yes. McGee will be in many more highlights, no doubt. Lopez is a big strong post defender who can run the floor. And make his FTs!

Zorgon: Oh, but the potential! The potential! Yeah, I understand.

Ray: I don't go for the sizzle as much as many fans do. DeAndre Jordan doesn't impress me as much for the same reason.

Zorgon: Nah, having seen him four times this year, I get the impression that he's the guy who benefits from all of the pressure put on Blake Griffin.


Ray: Over the last 10 games, the Thunder are only 5-5. While the losses have been to quality opponents (Clippers twice, Pacers, Heat and Grizzlies), are there any weaknesses they've exposed among the Thunder that particularly concern you?

Zorgon: Yes, there has been a lot of concern. Thunder fans are (or should be) noted as eternal optimists, always seeing the silver lining in every cloud. But with these recent losses, I've seen the same guys who were really excited about our 23 win season start having musings about our ability to finish well in the playoffs. The main problem I see is perfectly highlighted by what happened against the Clippers last night. Over the last couple of years, our offense has regressed to a 2-4 man game. Guys like Collison, Sefolosha, and Perkins don't even have plays drawn up for them anymore.

Recently we've been relying so much on Westbrook and Durant to score that our offense becomes predictable, and it's easy to put pressure on them and totally destroy the Thunder. There's minor concerns too, like Fisher throwing up too many threes, Cook getting no playing time, Harden looking malaised, but those are nothing compared to how predictable our offense has become.

Ray: Harden looking malaised? Can you elaborate?

Zorgon: Two games ago he was out with a "sore knee". The Thunder faced an outmatched Kings team that night, so it seemed like it was mainly precautionary. But when he returned the night after, he went 1-11 from the floor. Last night, he completely disappeared after the first half. It's a relatively recent problem, so I'm not making too much of it yet, but he hasn't broken 20 since March.

Ray: Wow, hadn't realized that. Harden has great support among many Phoenix fans who remember him from his time at Arizona St.


Zorgon: The Suns have a lot of players who used to be the talk of the town, but have dropped off of the NBA map. Sebastian Telfair, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Hakim Warrick ... Are there any of these guys that have surprised you in their stints this year or shown flashes of their former ability?

Ray: Both Telfair and Redd have been primary reasons for the Suns improved bench play and that improved bench play is a key reason for the team's second half resurgence. Redd had the health concerns but the Suns training staff is known as the best in the league for good reason, and he's continued to improve as instant offense off the bench.

Telfair, meanwhile, started the season terribly. He dominated the ball when in the game and took forever to get the offense going. Plus, he couldn't make a shot. Now he looks much more comfortable and confident playing with his teammates, hitting shots and playing intense defense. He might be worth keeping around as Nash's backup after this season.

Zorgon: Who would you rather have, him or Brooks? Or both?

Ray: All things being equal, I'd rather have Brooks but Telfair is making a measly $1.5M. Brooks might command a big salary this offseason.

Zorgon: So, would you pay Brooks and risk losing a big fish in the off-season, or go cheap with Telfair and aim high?

Ray: Go cheap with Telfair and aim high.


Ray: Currently, the Thunder have major contributors James Harden and Serge Ibaka on rookie contracts, so not paid at market value, while Durant, Westbrook and Perkins are making large salaries. It appears it will be difficult to hold onto them all long-term given salary cap constraints. What do you see as the pecking order of players the team would like to keep long-term?

Zorgon: Obviously, Durant and Westbrook are at the top of the heap. Perkins seems the likely candidate for the bottom, given that his production looks terrible on paper, and he hasn't produced offensively. But in the middle, Harden and Ibaka is a toughie. Harden still has the potential to be one of the league's greatest scorers, but Ibaka has done worlds to improve over the past few seasons.

I'd go with Ibaka as 3rd, just because it's a lot easier to find a poor man's Harden than it is a poor man's Ibaka, and I don't ever see his defense getting to the point where having him and Durant on the floor together consistently would be feasible.

Ray: Well then, you can add James Harden to the list of players the Suns would like to spend their cap space on!

Zorgon: Hahahaha, don't count your chickens before they hatch. We have our ways ... (sobs quietly in a corner)

Zorgon: Can the Suns be the next coming of Z-Bo's Grizzlies or the We Believe Warriors? In what scenario (if any) could you see the Suns pushing the Spurs, Thunder, Lakers, or even Clippers to 7 games or a victory?

Ray: It will take a total team contribution for the Suns to do that: Nash and Hill at full health, Channing Frye hitting his 3s, Shannon Brown continuing his recent scoring, Telfair, Redd and the bench providing not just relief but extending the leads. Frankly, it's not likely but the Suns have gone 20-10 since starting 12-19. If they make the playoffs, it won't be like they're backing in.

Did I scare you with that? You shaking in your boots over the thought of playing the Suns?

Zorgon: Hahahaha, I'm sorry to say that I'm not afraid of the Suns. I do have many memories of Steve Nash spoiling parties in the Ford Center's past though, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the Suns steal two from us in the first round. If the Suns take it to seven, then my eyes start opening.


Ray: Beyond the obvious choice of Steve Nash, are there any Suns players who have particularly impressed or surprised you this season?

Zorgon: Aside from the comeback performances of Redd and Telfair, everyone on the Suns has their card pretty well marked. I'll go with the cop out answer and say Marcin Gortat. I was a big Adonal Foyle fan, so I winced when I saw Gortat replace him at backup center for the Magic. But ever since then, I've enjoyed watching his game grow and evolve from a guy who's game wasn't much better than Foyle's to being the third best PPG center in the league. I'd take him over Perkins any day.

Ray: A big Adonal Foyle fan? I didn't realize there was such a thing!

Zorgon: Oh, it's a long story. Long story short, he was one of the most charitable players of all time. But I'd be lying if I said it wasn't an "adventure" every time he touched the ball. Really fun to watch though.


Ray: One last from me: what's gonna happen Wednesday night?

Zorgon: Once again, the Thunder will see their stagnant offense rise from the ashes, and Westbrook and Durant will both score at least 25, if it's not a total blowout. Should be fun for at least three quarters before the Suns fire a few too many threes and bury themselves on a hole. Final score 109-98.

Your prediction?

Ray: I see there being points, lots and lots of points. And it will come down to late-game execution, where the Suns have struggled at times. But not in this game. Clutch shots go down and Suns win 115-111.


My sincere thanks to Zorgon for his time and expertise. If you have any questions you'd like to ask him, he says he might pop into the comment thread and field some from you.

For more exclusive content, follow us on Twitter @Brightsidesun and "Like" us on Facebook.

We can do this, guys!  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns just finished a really tough 15-game stretch in which 12 of those games were on the road, a paltry three of 15 were against teams with losing records and only one of those "easy" games was at home.

In fact, going into that 15-game stretch, the 23-22 9th-place Suns were projected by www.basketball-reference.com to drop to 12th place, winning only eight more games the rest of the way to finish 31-35, with only an 11 percent chance of making the playoffs in 5,000 simulations. And that was assuming a healthy Steve Nash and Grant Hill in their lineup the whole time. Alas, Grant Hill needed knee surgery and missed nine of those 15 games. Then Nash tweaked a hip and struggled through the last three, barely playing against San Antonio.

Uh-oh. So much for that optimistic 11 percent chance of making the playoffs, right?

But these are Alvin Gentry's Suns, who always play better in the second half. These are the Suns who fight and claw and craft their way to wins they weren't supposed to get. These are the Suns with only two guys in their entire rotation who was a starter on his team immediately preceding his stint with the Suns (Nash and Redd), and one of those had a "career ending" injury.

What ACTUALLY happened in that 15-game gauntlet was a Suns renaissance. Despite injuries to Nash and Hill, the Suns pulled out eight big wins out of 15 (18-9 since the All-Star break overall) and now have the playoffs in their hands after a beat-down of the once-scary-but-now-tanking Trailblazers.

These Suns, with a 39-year old All-Star and 10 role players, own the 8th seed in the West with four of their last five games at home. Given the tiebreakers and ending schedules for all relevant teams, all it takes is a 3-2 finish (with one of those over Utah) to claim a playoff spot.

Let's take a closer look at how we got here, because in retrospect it is a special story.

This brutal 15-game stretch began inauspiciously on March 20 after the Suns had surged from a 14-20 All-Star break funk to win nine of 11 during a long home stretch that gave them a 23-22 record.

I wrote an article at that time about the schedule getting much tougher for the Suns

Playing only the odds, the Suns could comfortably be expected to win just 4 of those 15 games (Cavaliers, Hornets, Kings and Jazz). But really, that's even a stretch since only 1 of those games (Hornets) is a home game. The other teams will likely be tanking though, enhancing the Suns' chances for a needed W.

But what of the other 11 games in that 15-game stretch? Which of those can the Suns hope to win? Maybe Orlando, the NBA's best impression of Jekyll and Hyde. Maybe Indiana, who just got smoked by an energized Knicks team twice in a row. Maybe the Timberwolves, sans Rubio. And maybe Houston, who the Suns seem to be able to beat fairly often.

So, if all goes really well, then the Suns might take 7 or 8 wins out of this 15-game stretch. But you can't put those 7 or 8 wins in your back pocket. Just thinking reasonably, the Suns will lose at least 2 of those "winnable" games. To offset those losses, the Suns would have to pull off a couple of upsets against better teams just to come out of this 15-game stretch with a .500 record.

And that was when I assumed the Jazz would fade from relevancy. Unfortunately, they have not -- even beating the Mavericks last night in triple overtime to stay within 1/2 game of the Suns.

In fact, the Suns won eight of those 15 and now sit in 8th place in the West for their troubles.

Look at these juicy stats since the All-Star break for the Suns:

  • 4th in the NBA in points-per-game at 103.1
  • 6th in offensive efficiency
  • 5th in assists per game
  • 2nd in shooting percentage (.475)
  • 3rd fewest turnovers per game
  • 6th in blocks per game
  • 13th in rebounding (historically a terrible number for the Suns)
  • 15th in defensive efficiency

The Phoenix Suns are considered "deep" again. National commentators are touting the play of the bench unit. Opposing bloggers (Dave, from BEdge) mention the Suns depth in game previews. Alvin Gentry called this one of his favorite teams ever, in terms of the collection of guys in that locker room.

Now the Suns need to close the deal. Five games left against playoff-caliber competition: 2nd-seeded Thunder, 4th-seeded Clippers, 6th-seeded Nuggets, 9th-seeded Jazz and finally the top-seeded Spurs. Another gauntlet, but certainly doable. Three wins is all the Suns need.

This is a special 2nd-half, folks. Don't blink or you'll miss it.

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